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The Race to the White House

Bush Casts Big Net; Kerry Picks Spots

Democrat's ad spending targets fewer states, possibly signaling a steeper challenge.

September 15, 2004|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the first full week after the Republican convention, President Bush blitzed 17 states with television commercials in an effort to capitalize on his momentum in battlegrounds from coast to coast.

At the same time, Sen. John F. Kerry spent his TV dollars in a much narrower pool of eight crucial states. Democratic allies, meanwhile, sought to keep Kerry's chances alive in Arizona, Colorado and Missouri with advertisements in those Bush-leaning states.

That is the current picture of the electoral battlefield based on interviews Tuesday with top Democratic and Republican strategists and independent analysts as well as new data on TV ad buying patterns compiled for The Times.

"Bush is continuing with the national battleground strategy, to extend his convention bounce," said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ads for The Times. "Kerry is now cherry-picking. He's trying to extend his money and extend his buys. Either he's trying to husband his resources or he's saying the playing field is shrinking."

Another analyst said The Times' data showed the map was tilting toward Bush.

"It's getting close to where [Kerry] has got to get an inside straight," said Kenneth M. Goldstein, director of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project.

He noted that Kerry and the Democratic Party were no longer advertising in Virginia and Louisiana -- states targeted earlier in the year -- and were barely on the air in Arkansas and North Carolina.

Bush is not advertising in any of those states, which he carried in 2000. "The fact that Bush is spending zero there tells you all you need to know," Goldstein said.

Kerry spent more than $3.4 million combined in those four states earlier in the year.

Strategists and analysts cautioned that ad-buying patterns are likely to fluctuate between now and the Nov. 2 election. Senior Kerry advisor Tad Devine said the Democrat intended to expand his list of target states in coming weeks.

But for now, Kerry's targets are shrinking.

Before the Democratic convention in July, Kerry was targeting at least 20 states, including the home state of his vice presidential nominee, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

By contrast, from Sept. 5 through Saturday, Kerry targeted only eight states, The Times' data show: Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

In that week, Kerry spent more than $1.4 million on TV in the nation's top 100 markets. Bush spent more than $4.4 million -- some of that in coordination with the Republican Party. The president is now ramping up his spending to at least $7.6 million in the coming week, knowledgeable sources said, while Kerry is projected to spend about $4 million.

Boosting Kerry are allies operating independently of the nominee's campaign. The Democratic National Committee spent $3.4 million last week, and the liberal group MoveOn.org spent an additional $1.4 million.

In several states, the DNC appeared to be keeping Kerry afloat. For instance, it spent about $116,000 in Missouri, $83,000 in Arizona and $76,000 in Colorado.

Kerry himself spent nothing in those states last week, even though he invested $3.9 million in Arizona, $2.4 million in Colorado and $4.7 million in Missouri earlier in the year.

"We want to help the campaign keep as much in play as possible," said Ellen Moran, director of the DNC's independent expenditures. "Nothing is completely off the table. We're making our decisions day by day, week by week. We'll go where we see new opportunities and continue to fight where the battles are fiercest."

Some of the most intense waves of advertising continue to fall on Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, with a combined 68 electoral votes at stake. Wisconsin and Iowa have emerged as major TV ad zones as well.

Last week, the Service Employees International Union pumped $159,000 into Wisconsin to attack Bush on healthcare. Progress for America, a pro-Bush group, spent $241,000 in Wisconsin and $146,000 in Iowa.

Devine said Kerry has positioned himself to spend money where it's most needed in the closing weeks of the campaign -- avoiding the type of cash-poor situation that forced Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee, to write off states such as Ohio at the end.

"Our approach to the battlegrounds is that over the course of time as we get closer and closer to the election, the playing field of the battleground states will get bigger and bigger," Devine said. "In the course of doing that, there's going to be some ebb and flow."

He pointed to Nevada -- a state Bush won in 2000 -- as territory that Kerry might be able to take. Devine also said that Bush's ad purchases in Oregon, Maine and Washington appeared to be modest -- a sign, he said, that Republicans may be close to conceding there.

Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd dismissed that theory as wishful thinking.

"They're trying to make lemonade out of lemons. It's what you buy and what you put on the air that matters -- not future expectations," Dowd said. "A target state's not based on 'what we do in October' and what we tell you we're 'going to do.' It's what you're doing now."

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